Sheeple

“You can’t not have exams!” The old guy (a former teacher) was incredulous. I decided to play devil’s advocate. “Why not?”

“How would you educate the pupils? How would they get jobs without qualifications?”

The conversation came after he had finished reading The Great Exception, and I was being subjected to an intense grilling over its contents. I decided not to go down the avenues of what constitutes meaningful assessment, or the fact that other countries seem to manage very well with alternative structures.

I will say outright that I do not doubt the need for testing; the discussion was founded on a misreading of my point – but it only emphasised the extent to which the education world is lost in its own circular reasoning. One could easily get the impression that the world would stop turning were formal education – and hence exams – to cease to exist. But it is not so. What I question is that exams should be seen as the purpose of education: a view that has become steadily more pervasive.

Without exams, education would continue in other forms – after all, in essence it is nothing more than the process by which newly-arrived young creatures (even sheep) make sense of the world they find, and the vast majority of life on this planet manages quite well without examinations. It is true to say, however, that most ‘higher’ forms of life involve some form of education of the young by the old, even if mostly just by imitation. And even in ‘primitive’ human societies, some form of testing often emerges to validate that process.

As with musicians working towards a performance, a focus is desirable, if not essential for most learning – as indeed for work in general. It provides both a discrete objective and an incentive, in the form of validation of the effort invested and the standard achieved.

The problem comes from the short-sightedness that can ensue. The fact that one creates a largely artificial construct in order to motivate and validate does not mean that that benchmark is, or should be, the sole purpose of the exercise. I suspect many would accept that the point of learning to play music is not just to pass exams, or even to perform. It is an end in its own right, though the way it is often pursued makes it easy to lose sight of the fact.

Although I have reservations about the mentality that it develops, I don’t even object to the pursuit of targets per se – if that is what gives a certain kind of character its kicks – but we should still not conflate an appetite for challenge with the medium which some people happen to use to fulfil it. If ‘challenge’ is your thing, then it arguably doesn’t matter too much whether you express it through passing music exams, academic exams, learning watch-making or pushing your 100 metres personal best.

But the pursuit of challenge often crowds out the initial purpose of its ‘carrier’ medium. The point of music is to enjoy the creation or hearing of music as in intrinsic ‘good’. One assumes – though the case is somewhat weaker – that the point of running is at least in part to enjoy running. To see it as nothing more than the means to a (target) end is to allow extrinsic motivators to crowd out the intrinsic ones. This comes with a cost.

In the case of intellectual activity, the purpose is not to pass exams, but to develop one’s cognitive ability for its own sake, of which any specific application can only ever be a sub-objective. This is perhaps the most important activity of all, because the ability to use it is not only intrinsically rewarding, but also adaptively useful. It allows one to address life‘s problems in a more considered way, and generally to act more autonomously through the ability to analyse for oneself rather than being reliant on others for what to think or do.

To some extent, I can close purpose with my interlocutor here, because there is no doubt at all that one use of such abilities is indeed their application to Work, and the certificate that one gains through achieving a certain level is (supposedly) a marker of one’s effectiveness in that respect. But we should still not confuse the validation with the process itself.
Einstein is credited with the quote:

“Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

– though he may have been borrowing it from a perceptive but unknown wag. It is surely correct: the only inherent purpose of education is that which is common to all species: the development of the cognitive abilities that allow one to operate more effectively. All else is peripheral, no matter how enjoyable, or socially-useful we make it.

But the old guy’s comments were evidence of the extent to which we have lost sight of this: the social and economic advantages which recognised education can bring have trumped its fundamental purpose. Inasmuch as intellectual fulfilment can be gratuitous, so has this too: the capabilities one can acquire in specific disciplines are useful, and intellectually rewarding in their own right – but they too are nothing more than ‘carriers’ for the neural effect that such experiences can cause in building networks in the brain. This is what Einstein meant: the only true purpose of education is its cognitive effect; once you have that, everything else flows from it.

This is not to say that the incidental benefits of learning are unimportant but they are still nothing more than incidental, and their use is still dependent on effective neural development. It is quite possible for forms of formal education to fail to develop that – while still handing out certificates like confetti, in effect for simply having ‘breathed the air’.

The vast multitude of ‘qualifications’ held by populations around the world do not stop them from making some pretty stupid decisions, which better ability to self-scrutinise cognitively might reveal this fact. This is no surprise: qualifications are simply social constructs that attempt to reflect (imperfectly) someone’s real abilities. But the focusing on the peripheral benefits – to the extent of losing sight of their true status – can even prevent people from using their brains in the way they need to. Alvesson & Spicer’s book The Stupidity Paradox is a testament to the fact the even extremely clever people can act very stupidly when circumstances conspire.

The inability of people to scrutinise claims made in the Brexit debate is just the most extreme recent example of how all the certificates in the world do not in themselves prove people can use their heads. It may even be getting worse. There was some correlation between education levels and voting decisions, but I am not implying that there was a ‘correct’ decision – simply that the grounds on which it was made were often flimsy. Subsequent developments have shown this to be so.

This comes at the time when the subject that arguably most directly addressed the issue has been removed from the school curriculum. Simply because it did not meet QCA’s administrative criteria, Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level is no more. I suppose I should not be surprised: the formal educational establishment in Britain long ago lost sight of its true raison d’être. Just as the financial sector stopped funding the real economy when it was allowed to manufacture greater (spurious) benefit from financial engineering, the education sector long ago stopped being about actually educating people in the neural sense, and started being about fulfilling its own internal objectives.

So long ago, in fact, that it seems that even several previous generations of teachers cannot be relied upon to have noticed. But the consequences of this myopia are very real, and living with us in the way society as a whole is changing today. Its growing failure to do anything more than equip people with meaningless bits of paper is the elephant in the room of why education is not achieving what it supposedly sets out to.

With even the professional educational world largely thinking like sheep, one wonders what hope there is.

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